THE BLOG

Value of Briton's Unclaimed and Heirless Estates Doubles in a Year

16/05/2013 13:52 BST | Updated 15/07/2013 10:12 BST

Some among us are frequently heard to promise to get around to pressing tasks "tomorrow".

Whether it's the gardening, washing the car or attending to domestic paperwork, there always seem to be bigger and more immediate priorities to attend to.

Quite often, tomorrow never comes. That can be gleaned by the huge number of individuals who, despite their assurances and best intentions, never get around to making a will. One charity recently estimated that two-thirds of Britons have yet to set down what should happen to their assets in the event of their death.

The complications of intestacy can be considerable enough for any surviving relatives left behind to deal with the dual burden of heartache from bereavement and the headache of administration.

However, such problems are multiplied by the absence of any heirs. In these circumstances, the entire estates of those who pass away become known as bona vacantia, a phrase meaning "ownerless goods" in Latin.

If neither wills nor heirs can be found, efforts are first made to determine if surviving relatives who might be entitled to the assets exist.

Under laws dating back to medieval times, if no claimants come forward, all bona vacantia either pass to the Treasury on behalf of the Crown or to the duchies of Cornwall and Lancaster, if the deaths of individuals who leave neither wills nor heirs occurred within their boundaries.

The amount of bona vacantia is increasing. Dramatically. In the 12 months to last March, the combined value of estates which became the responsibility of the duchies and the Treasury Solicitor almost doubled to more than £38.5 million in 2012.

Whilst there was a slight increase in such income in Lancaster, the same period saw a more dramatic rise in the value of bona vacantia passed to the Duchy of Cornwall - up from £75,000 to £552,000. That meant that in the last six years, more than £1 million worth of bona vacantia fell to the Duchy - an estate held by the Prince of Wales - to be administered.

The Treasury, however, saw the value of its bona vacantia income surge from nearly £17 million to £33.514 million over the 12 month period in question.

Of course, it's worth pointing out that this is no abstract issue involving small numbers of very wealthy estates and, therefore, far removed from the experience of people such as you and I.

The amounts which myself and my colleagues at Pannone LLP had found in the accounts of the duchies and the Treasury Solicitor are more likely to be made up of very large numbers of very small estates.

We help many hundreds of individuals put their affairs and their estates in order each year but even we were left scratching our heads in trying to find an explanation as to why the amount of bona vacantia has risen by so much in such a relatively short space of time.

It could be that some cases of this nature involve people who regarded their assets as being so comparatively small as not to require a will being made. However, the cumulative sum which we encountered shows just how widespread the failure to do so actually is.

There is also a risk if, even having made a will, it isn't kept up-to-date, that beneficiaries and executors don't know where it is or any intended heirs do not survive the person making it.

The duchies and the Treasury Solicitor do set aside sums to guard against the possibility of relatives making late claims on such estates, giving rise to the potential of someone's assets ultimately being distributed among relatives who were never intended to benefit in the first place.

Retrospective claims are made. Figures released by the Treasury have revealed how an increase in enquiries about unclaimed assets have swollen the number of individual bona vacantia cases which it deals with.

Part of that, they reckon, is down to more investigations by genealogists or so-called 'heir hunters' trying to trace kin entitled to such estates.

All that research and administration could be so easily avoided. Regardless of how wealthy we believe we are (or aren't), it is relatively simple to arrange one's affairs to prevent whatever assets we do have becoming ownerless. Only the more complicated estates require more than the average amounts of time and effort to put them in order.

After all, whilst wills are one of the things which many of us choose to put off until tomorrow, who knows what tomorrow will actually bring.